Loyalty is important to everyone in the vast open world of Rockstar Games’ cowboy-filled, action-heavy prequel, Red Dead Redemption 2. The Van der Linde gang is full of men and women who do some pretty questionable things, and even protagonist Arthur Morgan is quick to correct others when they applaud his good nature, but the camaraderie around their campfire is beautiful. The illuminated road family can be found harmonising with gusto after a couple of drinks, forgetting, for a moment at least, the havoc they’ve caused across state lines. Arthur isn’t too far off the mark, really; these men and women aren’t good, they’re great.

All they want is a couple of bob in their collective pocket, a full belly, and safety from lawmen and rival gangs. Obviously, there are ways of ensuring all this without firing a single weapon, but they are outlaws on the run, to be fair. It’s what they know. And it’s also one of the weaker areas of Red Dead Redemption 2. Aiming is offset by a charitable assist that snaps the reticle to the nearest enemy, and it has to; it’s quite loose without. The terrific Dead Eye system has been improved upon, still allowing you to tag to kill – or hurt if you don’t do it properly – while time comes to a near standstill. It also now highlights sensitive areas like the head, which is really susceptible to bullet damage, dontcha know. The best thing I can say about firing rounds at baddies is that it’s mostly serviceable. A decent array of weapons lets you fiddle with your loadout, with degradation rearing its worn-down head, but never feeling too obstructive, thankfully. Basically, your guns get a little dirty from use and you have to give them a wipe down every now again. It’s fine. It gives you a chance to appreciate the lovely scenery in a moment of pause. Lovely.

It’s like a picturesque postcard that hasn’t been ruined by shitty WordArt stating how the sender wished you were in the same place the postcard was bought. No wishful thinking necessary; you’re here already. There’s distinction between each area, and not once does it grate; it’s elegantly laid out. From snowy mountain tops, to grassy plains, to a bustling city, it’s all gorgeous. Yet the most impressive thing about the map isn’t how it looks; it’s how it feels. ‘Lived-in’ is a commonly used buzzword in the open world space, and it rarely means more than NPCs speaking to each other and pissing in bushes, but here Rockstar has destroyed anyone else’s claim to the phrase.

It’s staggering how inconsequential you feel at times. You’re undoubtedly important to your story, but your presence is trivial to the guy you meet in the forest who’s hunting a bear, or the lad at the top of the hill who’s hit the jackpot by finding some tobacco plants. Granted, they won’t all be blasé towards you; some folks you meet on the side of the road will seek your help, and how you interact will affect your overall Honor, but all of these chance encounters make it feel – wait for it… wait for it… – like a lived-in world. I sucked venom out of a fella’s leg one time because he was close to snuffing it, and it just so happened that I met him a few days later, and he bought me a new gun as a gift for saving his life. Nice of him, I thought.

These random happenings aren’t your side quests, though. Those come from a diverse cast of misfits dotted across the map called Strangers. Sometimes silly, sometimes sentimental, always recommended. Seldom does optional content feel as pivotal in world-building as it does here. Often, they’re self-contained threads with three or four missions, giving you the chance to really get to know an old flame, an eccentric artist, a recently widowed woman, or a concerned animal wrangler, to name but a four. 

Each one adds another wrinkle to the locals’ story, and to Arthur himself, a lot of the time. Because of that, and the variance in structure and personality, there’s no doubt in my mind that many will likely miss some of the best stuff Red Dead Redemption 2 has to offer, such is the density of this elaborate landscape. You mightn’t come across every stranger, but savour the ones you do, because you’ll be forced to recognise just how good the animations are.

Don’t get me wrong: the natural movement of every character, both those that can and can’t talk, is incredible. It’s clear that realism is strived for, and is assuredly reached. However, because certain animations can’t be cancelled, and you have to pick up items individually when looting an area, realism can do one. Well, in certain cases. At times, RDR2 is hampered by authenticity; you don’t need to show exactly how a man would ready himself, take two steps towards the table, and then open the big accounts book used by his pals at camp. Every. Single. Time. And even though the world is well-populated, its vastness means getting from A to B can take awhile, which can be annoying if you’re particularly interested in B. A more magicky, gamey fast travel would’ve been better than having to either hop on public transport or use the map back at camp. 

The location of your base changes without ever losing a sense of home. That’s mainly thanks to the people: the feisty Sadie, thoughtful Charles, inebriated Karen, roguish Sean. With your horse hitched, you can stroll around your camp, learning more about buddies by talking to them, or by enjoying a game of dominoes or five finger fillet. They don’t just stand in their corner waiting for you to approach them either; they’ll come to you with worries, a joke, frivolous conversation. On one occasion, I was watching a discussion between two other characters, when I was brought into the chat by one of those present, without disrupting the flow. Games don’t do that, normally. If you’re watching NPCs shoot the breeze, you’re invisible. Not in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Of its many accolades, two of the strongest are Arthur Morgan and Dutch van der Linde. Powered by acting performances that would feel at home in a top HBO drama, their relationship and individual development is an absolute delight that doesn’t dip at any point. Dutch’s unwavering pride is highlighted through charismatic monologues delivered with aplomb, while Arthur’s personal journey is expertly portrayed and written. Some of the clumsy depictions in the last outing felt out of place or downright offensive. That’s not the case here. This isn’t just some of the best writing in a Rockstar game; this is some of the best in the medium. 

I do love my horse, too. All my horses. A good steed is paramount, but a connection between you two is critical. Through feeding, patting, and brushing, the bond between you and your mount becomes stronger. This makes them easier to handle, and opens up new abilities like powersliding (!), which is beneficial when you’re evading the law. You can purchase new horsey gear at a stable, which in turn increases your four-legged friend’s stats. You can give them a gorge new mane, as well; we all like to be pampered. You’re not meant to have a favourite, but between us, Gillian was mine. Dependable.

Technically, Red Dead Redemption 2 is equally reliable. You’d expect a map of this size and scope to be riddled in all manner of hilarious bugs, but it isn’t; I can count the negligible amount on one hand. It’s as slick as anything, seamlessly transitioning from cinematic to gameplay and back again better than any I’ve seen before. With so many systems at play, it’s astonishing, really.

Sure, the helping hand is needed while aiming down the sights, and it would be preferable if Red Dead Redemption 2 embraced the fact that it's a video game more in certain areas, but there’s no question that the excellence outweighs the niggles. Following the original was never going to be easy, but the hard-working people at Rockstar have made it look so. Every single person involved in this project should be exceptionally proud of what they’ve created: a western epic that engrosses right up until the final bullet.

Developer: Rockstar Studios

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PlayStation 4

Release date: October 26, 2018

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